Benson | AFA Journal Associate Editor
My maternal grandmother died two years ago at age 99. She was a
tiny woman who stood only four feet, seven inches tall and wore
a size two shoe. But her love for Christ and His Word made her a
spiritual giant in the eyes of family and friends.
For over five decades she spent untold hours each week preparing
to teach her beloved womens Bible class that now bears her
But that was before Alzheimers disease robbed Nannie of her
mental faculties. Helplessly our family watched as the memories
we shared faded, and the spunky personality we loved became confused
and anxious. Finally, through tears, my mom and dad came to realize
they could no longer care for her at home. We still lament over
how an intelligent, vital human being could become so tragically
So when politicians, scientists and entertainers tout embryonic
stem cells as an almost magical cure for Alzheimers, spinal
cord injuries, diabetes and other such debilitating conditions,
we remember Nannie. Like millions of families, we want to support
medical research that might lead to cures that would spare others
But at what cost? For Christians who believe that human life in
any form is sacred, the promise of these new cures and therapies
raises difficult questions about stem cell research. Coming to an
informed position that reflects the mind of Christ requires thoughtful
consideration of the terms, the politics and the theology of the
The terms of the debate
Human stem cells are the "master cells of the body,"
and have the ability to grow into other specialized types of cells,
according to the Christian Medical and Dental Association (CMDA).
The value of stem cells in medical treatments is the hope that
they can be used to replace diseased cells with healthy ones. For
example, in a treatment that is done over 15,000 times a year in
the U.S. alone, stem cells replace a patients bone marrow
after high doses of chemotherapy or radiation. Scientists hope that
research will lead to cures in which stem cells would replace cells
damaged by diabetes, Parkinson, Alzheimers, heart disease
and a host of other conditions.
Stem cells found in human embryos can divide and change into all
of the 210 cell types in the human body. These types of stem cells
are called embryonic stem cells. (An embryo is a human
being at the stage from fertilization to about eight days.)
The primary sources of embryonic stem cells for research are the
extra embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization (IVF), a method
of assisted reproduction in which the mans sperm and the womans
egg are combined in a laboratory dish and fertilization occurs.
The resulting embryo is then transferred to the uterus to develop
naturally. Often in IVF, extra embryos are frozen and saved for
later, much less expensive future pregnancies. However, thousands
of these frozen embryos go unused and are available for research
Cells harvested from these seven- to ten-day-old embryos can develop
into any type of body tissue cell, but cannot become an entire human.
The ovaries and testes of aborted fetuses are another source of
embryonic stem cells.
But animal experiments have shown that the use of embryonic stem
cells in reparative therapies is a troublesome proposition. Since
the genetic makeup of a patient is different to that of a donor,
the patients immune system rejects the implanted cells. The
solution is to produce a genetically identical embryo by fusing
a cell from the patient with a donated egg. After a few days of
development, the inner cell mass is harvested for its stem cells.
The embryo is destroyed in the process. Simply put, a patient sacrifices
his embryonic twin to cure his own illness.
"The embryonic clone would be the patients genetic twin
displaced in time," explains Dr. David Stevens, CMDA director.
"It would be a human being because it has the chromosomes of
a human perfectly formed for that stage of development. At that
point in time, the embryo is self-directed and, if left in the proper
environment, it will continue development through gestation, birth,
maturity and eventually natural death, just like all humans."
Adult stem cells are non-embryonic cells found in many parts
of the body including bone marrow, lungs, pancreas, brain, skin
and even fat. For over 20 years, adult stem cells have been
used in treatments for cancer and auto-immune diseases. Until recently
scientists have thought these cells could not differentiate into
other kinds of specialized cells. A brain cell could not become
a heart cell, for example. However, scientists are now finding that
some adult stem cells can turn into other types of tissues. In the
public debate, stem cells found in umbilical cord and placenta stem
cells are also commonly considered adult stem cells.
The politics of the debate
Since the use of embryonic stem cells necessitates the destruction
of the human embryo, the controversy raised by stem cell research
is the same as in the abortion debate. The fundamental moral question
is whether the early embryo is a human life.
Particularly troubling for pro-life advocates is the fact that
so far there have been no successful therapies developed using embryonic
stem cells in humans. In addition "the most recent studies
in animals have shown embryonic stem cells to be unstable and unpredictable,"
according to CMDA (www.cmdahome.org).
Nigel M. de S. Cameron, dean of the Wilberforce Forum and a member
of The Council of Biotechnology Policy, writes that animal experiments
using embryonic stem cells "have yielded very little evidence
of cures and many problems." Cameron and other pro-life experts
agree that even if research on embryonic stem cells begins to show
promise, useful therapies are many years down the road.
However, "adult stem cell research holds as much, if not more,
promise as embryonic stem cell research, and we are likely to get
to our therapeutic goals more quickly if the federal government
puts its funding into this area," Stevens says.
Treatments using non-embryonic stem cells derived from umbilical
cord blood, bone marrow, brain tissue and fat are proving successful
now. Personal testimonies of treatment successes given before the
Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space are
posted at www.stemcellresearch.org,
the Web site of Do No Harm, an organization that describes itself
as a "coalition of Americans for research ethics."
So, if the most promising stem cell therapies use cells that can
be harvested without doing harm to a human embryo, why are some
scientific experts strongly promoting federal funding of embryonic
stem cell research? And why, in the words of bioeth-icist Wesley
Smith, does the mainstream media give stories about embryonic stem
cell research "the brass band treatment" while reports
about adult stem cells are "generally about as intense and
excited as a stifled yawn"?
According to a National Journal article titled "Mixing
Business with Stem Cells" by Neil Munro, there is a simple
answer: money. Munro writes "
the media coverage has often
missed the pecuniary interests of the scientists who have been prominent
in supporting government funding for research into the use of stem
cells from human embryos." In other words, the press has largely
ignored instances in which those promoting embryonic stem cell research
including prominent scientists and faculty members at
prestigious universities and public research institutions
have personal stakes in private biotech companies that would benefit
directly or indirectly from federal funding.
Ideologues and victims
The lack of biotech investors in embryonic stem cell enterprises
also suggests that useful therapies may be far into the future.
"Private investors avoid them because they dont want
to wait perhaps 10 years for commercial products that very well
may not materialize and because theyre spooked by the ethical
concerns," writes Michael Fumento in Insight magazine.
"That leaves essentially only Uncle Sams piggy bank,
primarily grants from the National Institutes of Health, to keep
these labs open."
Stevens says there are at least two other reasons why "a key
core group of scientists" is promoting embryonic stem cell
research. One is that the process of using adult stem cells is medically
simple and cannot be patented. So, there is no significant money
to be made with the research.
"What most people dont understand is that medical school
and institutional research has changed tremendously in the past
20 years," Stevens said. "We used to think of researchers
working purely to help people, but thats not the way medical
schools attract their top scientists. Now they tell the scientists
up front that they will not get large salaries that the biotech
companies offer. But, if the scientist finds something that is marketable,
then the medical school or institutional research firm will spin
off a for-profit company and the scientist will get half the profits."
A second disturbing reason, according to Stevens, why some scientists
are promoting the use of embryonic stem cells in research for regenerative
therapies, is that it would open the door for experimentation on
human beings in other areas. "They could study the effects
of new drugs on humans, for example, without having to go through
clinical trials or a review committee," he says. "They
would have the ability to sacrifice human beings for any research
As for the media pattern of over-reporting embryonic stem cell
news and under-reporting adult stem cell news, Fumento says that
take their cues from the professional medical
journals. And, unfortunately, these are among the leaders in the
war against adult stem cells."
"To the professional journals this is an issue of scientific
freedom." Stevens says. "They see the tremendous knowledge
that can be gained through experimenting on humans and they want
to see it happen."
As for celebrities like Christopher Reeve, a victim of a spinal
cord injury, and Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinsons disease,
Stevens says they are victims of disinformation and news bias. "If
there is anything in the news about embryonic stem cells, it will
be on the front page of The New York Times. If the news is about
adult stem cells, youre going to have to dig it out of the
original medical journals."
The theology of the debate
For Christians, the moral debate over the use of embryonic stem
cells hinges on the question: When does life begin, according to
the Creator? In the context of the stem cell debate that question
might be restated: Does God see the early embryo as a human being
made in His image?
But in addition, the issue raises more complex quandaries concerning
the morality of IVF, cloning and the place of suffering in the believers
In a recent article in Christianity Today, Amy Laura Hall,
United Methodist minister and assistant professor of theological
ethics at Duke Divinity School, warned that in the face of medical
advances, evangelicals can be tempted to soften their position on
the sanctity of life. "For years, evangelical leaders have
been clear on the question of life and personhood beginning at conception,"
she said. "Now we have found a use for embryos, with the possibility
of healing ourselves and healing our children, we are tempted to
rethink our position on prenatal life."
CMDA literature asserts that even an objective look at the process
of human development "will easily identify the beginnings of
human life at the logically and biologically clear point of fertilization,
when an individuals genetic makeup is complete and unique.
Establishing the start of human life at any later point along the
seamless continuum of human development
is patently arbitrary
From a theological perspective, Barbara Quigley, executive director
of the Bioethics Center of St. Louis, says that because Gods
actions are sometimes beyond our understanding, Christians must
avoid pragmatic "consequence-oriented reasoning alone."
In the context of the stem cell research debate that means even
a noble end relieving suffering does not justify the
means the destroying of a human life.
In an article titled "Is the Church Ready for the Biotech
Era?" Quigley said, "We must act on the basis of what
we know in Christ to be right, and not act on the basis of simple
human assessment of the (apparent) good to be produced."
At a minimum what we can know about the sanctity of human life
includes these four Scriptural principles:
1. Humans are made in Gods image. (Genesis 1:26-27)
2. We are not to unjustly take human life. (Deuteronomy 5:17)
3. God knew us as individuals in our mothers womb and even
before. (Psalm 139:15, 16)
4. Our Savior was once a single cell embryo. (Matthew 1:20)
With these in mind, what option do Christians have but to protect
even the very youngest human members of His creation?
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